The Parish Church of St John
in the Town of Preston
Painting by E.Beatie
Photograph supplied by and © of Brian Young
Photograph supplied by and © of Brian Young
The following is reproduced from "Our Churches and Chapels" by Atticus (A. HEWITSON) and was printed at the "Chronicle" Office, Fishergate, Preston. 1869. The Lancashire Online Parish Clerks Project wish to acknowledge Project Gutenberg who have made this and many other books freely available.
It doesn't particularly matter when the building we call our Parish Church was first erected; and, if it did, the world would have to die of literary inanition before it got the exact date. None of the larger sort of antiquaries agree absolutely upon the subject, and the smaller fry go in for all sorts of figures, varying as to time from about two years to one hundred and fifty. This may be taken as a homoeopathic dose in respect to its history:- built about 900 years since by Catholics, and dedicated to St. Wilfrid; handed over to Protestants by somebody, who was perhaps acting on the very generous principle of giving other folk's property, in the 16th century; rebuilt in 1581, and dedicated to St. John; rebuilt in 1770; enlarged, elaborated, and rejuvenised in 1853; plagued with dry rot for a considerable time afterwards; in a pretty good state of architectural health now; and likely to last out both this generation and the next. It looks rather genteel and stately outside; it has a good steeple, kept duly alive by a congregation of traditional jackdaws; it has a capital set of bells which have put in a good deal of overtime during the past five months, through a pressure of election business; and in its entirety, as Baines once remarked, the building looks like "a good ordinary Parish Church." There is nothing either snobbish or sublime about it; and, speaking after Josh Billings, "it's a fair even-going critter," capable of being either pulled down or made bigger. That is about the length and breadth of the matter, and if we had to appeal to the commonwealth as to the correctness of our position it would be found that the "ayes have it." We don't believe in the Parish Church; but a good deal of people do, and why shouldn't they have their way in a small fight as well as the rest of folk? All, except Mormons and Fenians, who honestly believe in anything, are entitled to respect.
Our Parish Church has a good contour, and many of its exterior architectural details are well conceived and arranged; but, like other buildings of the same order, it has got a multiplicity of strange hobgoblin figure-heads about it which serve no purpose either earthly or heavenly, and which are understood by hardly one out of five million. We could never yet make it out why those grotesque pieces of masonry--gargoyles, we believe, they are called- -were fixed to any place of worship. Around our Parish Church and half-way up the steeple, there are, at almost every angle and prominence, rudely carved monstrosities, conspicuous for nothing but their ineffable and heathenish ugliness. Huge eyes, great mouths, immense tooth, savage faces and distorted bodies are their prime characteristics. The man who invented this species of ecclesiastical decoration must have been either mad or in "the horrors." An evenly balanced mind could never have thought of them, and why they should he specially tacked to churches is a mystery in accordance with neither King Solomon nor Cocker. The graveyard of our Parish Church is, we dare say, something which very few people think of. We have seen many such places in our time; but that in connection with our Parish Church is about the grimmest specimen in the lot. It has a barren, cold, dingy, unconsecrated look with it; and why it should have we can't tell. Either ruffianism or neglect must at some time have done a good stroke of business in it; for many of the gravestones are cracked in two; some are nearly broken to pieces; and a considerable number of those in the principal parts of the yard are being gradually worn out. We see no fun, for instance, in "paving" the entrances to the church with gravestones. Somebody must, at some time, have paid a considerable amount of money in getting the gravestones of their relatives smoothed and lettered; and it could never have been intended that they should be flattened down, close as tile work, for a promiscuous multitude of people to walk over and efface. The back of the churchyard is in a very weary, delapidated and melancholy state. Why can't a few shrubs and flowers be planted in it? Why is not the ground trimmed up and made decent? From the time when the Egyptians worshipped cats and onions down to the present hour, religious folk have paid some special attention to their grave spaces, and we want to see the custom kept up. Our Parish Church yard has a sad, forsaken appearance; if it had run to seed and ended in nothing, or had been neglected and closed up by an army of hypochondriacs, it could not have been more gloomy, barren, or disheartening. The ground should be looked after, and the stones preserved as much as possible. It is a question of shoes v. gravestones at present, and, if there is not some change of position, the shoes will in the end win.
About the interior of our Parish Church there is nothing particularly wonderful; it has a respectable, substantial, reverential appearance, and that is quite as much as any church should have. There is no emblematic ritualistic moonshine in any part of it; we hope there never may be; we are sure there never will be so long as the men now at the helm are in office. But let us start at the beginning. The principal entrance is through a massive and somewhat dimly-lighted porch, which, in its time, has necessarily, like all church porches, been the scene of much pious gossip, superstition, and sanctimonious scandal. It is rather a snug place to halt in. If you stand on one side of the large octagonal font, which is placed in the centre of the inner perch, and patronised by about 20 of the rising race every Sunday afternoon, you will be able to see everybody, whilst nobody can distinctly see you. As a rule, many people are too fired, or too ill, or too idle, to go to a place of worship on a Sunday morning, and at our Parish Church one may plainly notice this. A certain number always put in a regular appearance. If they did not attend the Parish Church twice a day they would become apprehensive as to both their temporal respectability awl spiritual welfare. They are descendants of the old long-horned stock, and have a mighty notion of the importance of church-going. Probably they don't care very profoundly for the sermons; but they have got into a safe-sided, orthodox groove, and some of them have an idea that they will be saved as much by church- going as by faith. The members of this class have a large notion of the respectability of their individual pews and seats. If they belonged to a family of five hundred each, and if every one of them had to go to Church every Sunday, they would want their respective seats, Prayer Books, footstools, and all that sort of thing. They don't like to see strangers rambling about, in search of a resting place; they are particularly solemn-looking, and give symptoms of being on the border of some catastrophe, if an unknown being shows any disposition to enter their pews. And some of them would see a person a good deal beyond the ether side of Jordan before they would think of handing him a Prayer Book. We don't suppose any of them are so precise as the old gentleman who once, when a stranger entered his pew, doubled up the cushion, sat upon it in a two-fold state, and intimated that ordinary beards were good enough for interlopers; but after all there is much of the "number one" principle in the devotion of these goodly followers of the saints, and they have been so long at the game that a cure is impossible.
Taking the congregation of our Parish Church in the agregate it is a fair sample of every class of human life. You have the old maid in her unspotted, demurely-coloured moire antique, carrying a Prayer Book belonging to a past generation; you have the ancient bachelor with plenty of money and possessing a thorough knowledge as to the safest way of keeping it, his great idea being that the best way of getting to heaven is to stick to his coins, attend church every Sunday, and take the sacrament regularly; you have the magistrate, whose manner, if not his beard, is of formal cut; the retired tradesman, with his domestic looking wife, and smartly-dressed daughters, ten times finer than ever their mother was; the manufacturer absorbed in cotton and wondering when he will be able to do a good stroke of business on 'change again; the lawyer, who has carried on a decent business amongst fees during the week, and has perhaps turned up to join in the general confession; the doctor, ready to give emphasis to that part of it which says:- "And there is no health in us;" the pushing tradesman, who has to live by going to church, as well as by counter work; the speculating shopkeeper, who has a connection to make; the young finely-feathered lady, got up in silk and velvet and carrying a chignon sufficient to pull her cerebellum out of joint; the dandy buttoned up to show his figure, and heavily dosed with scent; the less developed young swell, who is always "talking about his pa and his ma," and has only just begun to have his hair parted down the middle; the broken down middle-aged man who was once in a good position, but who years since went all in a piece to pot; the snuff-loving old woman who curtsies before fine folk, who has always a long tale to tell about her sorrows, and who is periodically consoled by a "trifle;" the working man who is rather a scarce article, except upon special occasions; and the representative of the poorest class, living somewhere in that venal slum of slime and misery behind the church. A considerable number of those floating beings called "strags" attend the Parish Church. They go to no place regularly; they gravitate at intervals to the church, mainly on the ground that their fathers and mothers used to go there, and because they were christened there; but they belong a cunning race; they can scent the battle from afar, and they generally keep about three-quarters of a mile from the Parish Church when a collection has to be made. To the ordinary attendants, collections do not operate as deterrents; but to the "strags" they are frighteners. "What's the reason there are so few people here?" we said one day to the beadle, and that most potent, grave, and reverend seignior replied, with a Rogersonian sparkle in his rolling eye, "There's a collection and the 'strags' won't take the bait." It is the same more or less at every place of worship; and to tell the truth, there's a sort of instinctive dislike of collections in everybody's composition.
The congregation of our Parish Church is tolerably numerous, and embraces many fine human specimens. Money and fashion are well represented at it; and as Zadkiel and the author of Pogmoor Almanac say those powers have to rule for a long time, we may take it for granted that the Parish Church will yet outlive many of the minor raving academies in which they are absent. There is touch more generalisation than there used to be as to the sittings in our Parish Church; but "birds of a feather flock together" still. The rich know their quarters; exquisite gentlemen and smart young ladies with morrocco-bound gilt-edged Prayer Books still cluster in special sections; and although it is said that the poor have the best part of the church allotted to them, the conspicuousness of its position gives a brand to it neither healthy nor pleasant. They are seated down the centre aisle; but the place is too demonstrative of their poverty. If half the seats were empty, situated excellently though they may be, you wouldn't catch any respectable weasle asleep on them. If some doctor, or magistrate, or private bib-and-tucker lady had to anchor here, supposing there were any spare place in any other part of the house, there would be a good deal of quizzing and wonderment afloat. If you don't believe it put on a highly refined dress and try the experiment; and if you are not very specially spotted we wild give a fifty dollar greenback on behalf of the society for converting missionary eaters in Chillingowullabadorie. We shall say nothing with regard to the ordinary service of the Parish Church, except this, that it would look better of three fourths of the congregation if they would not leave the responses to a paid choir. "Lor, bless yer," as Betsy Jane Ward would say, a choir will sing, anything put before them if it is set to music; and they think no more of getting through all that sad business about personal sinfulness, agonising repentance, and a general craving for forgiveness, than the odd woman did when she used to kiss her cow and say it was delicious. There was once a period when all Parish Church goers made open confession joined audibly in the prayers, and said "Amen" as if they meant it; although we are doubtful about even that. Now, the choir does all the work, and the congregation are left behind the distance post to think about the matter. But if it suits the people it's quite right.
There are three parsons at our Parish Church--Canon Parr, who is the seventeenth vicar in a regular line of succession since the Reformation and two curates. As to the curates we shall say nothing beyond this, that one has got a better situation and is going to it, and that the other would like one if he could get it--not that the present is at all bad, only that there are others better. We don't know how many curates there have been at the Parish Church since the Reformation; but it, may be safely said that in their turn they have, as a rule, accepted with calm and Christian resignation better paid places when they had a fair opportunity of getting them. We are not going to say very much about Cannon Parr, and let nobody suppose that we shall make an effort to tear a passion to tatters regarding any of his peculiarities. Canon Parr is an easy-going, genial, educated man kindly disposed towards good living, not blessed with over much money, fond of wearing a billycock, and strongly in love with a cloak. He has seen much of the world, is shrewd, has a long head, has both studied and travelled for his learning, and is the smartest man Preston Protestants could have to defend their cause. But he has a certain amount of narrowness in his mental vision, and, like the bulk of parsons, can see his own way best. He has a strong temper within him, and he can redden up beautifully all over when his equanimity is disturbed. If you tread upon his ecclesiastical bunions he will give you either a dark mooner or an eye opener--we use these classical terms in a figurative sense. He will keep quiet so long as you do; but if you make an antagonistic move be will punish you if possible. He can wield a clever pen; his style is cogent, scholarly, and, unless overburdened with temper, dignified. He can fling the shafts of satire or distil the balm of pathos; can be bitter, saucy, and aggravating; can say a hard thing in a cutting style; and if he does not go to the bone it's no fault of his. He can also tone down his language to a point of elegance and tenderness; can express a good thing excellently, and utter a fine sentiment well. His speaking is modelled after a good style; but it is inferior to his writing. In the pulpit he expresses himself easily, often fervently, never rantingly. The pulpit of the Parish Church will stand for ever before he upsets it, and he will never approach that altitude of polemical phrenitis which will induce him to smash any part of it. His pulpit language is invariably well chosen; some of his subjects may be rather commonplace or inappropriate, but the words thrown into their exposition are up to the mark. He seldom falters; he has never above one, "and now, finally, brethren," in his concluding remarks; he invariably gives over when he has done--a plan which John Wesley once said many parsons neglected to observe; and his congregation, whether they have been awake or fast asleep, generally go away satisfied. Canon Parr has been at our Parish Church nine and twenty years, and although we don't subscribe to his ecclesiastical creed, we believe he has done good in his time. He is largely respected; he would have been more respected if he had been less exacting towards Dissenters, and less violent in his hatred of Catholics. Neither his Church-rate nor Easter Due escapade improved his position; and some of his fierce anti-Popery denunciations did not increase his circle of friends. But these things have gone by, and let them be forgotten. In private life Canon Parr is essentially social: he can tell a good tale, is full of humour; he knows a few things as well as the rest of men, and is charitably disposed--indeed he is too sympathetic and this causes hint to be pestered with rubbishy tales from all sorts of individuals, and sometimes to act upon them as if they were true. As a Protestant vicar--and, remembering that no angels have yet been born in this country, that everybody is somewhat imperfect, and that folk will differ--we look upon Canon Parr as above the average. He has said extravagant and unreasonable things in his time; but he has rare properties, qualities of sense and erudition, which are strangers to many pretentious men in his line of business; and, on the whole, he may be legitimately set down, in the language of the "gods," as "O.K."